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“What do we need? Really Need?”

June 26, 2018

“What does a man need–really need? A few pounds of food each day, heat and shelter, six feet to lie down in–and some form of working activity that will yield a sense of accomplishment.

“That is all–in the material sense, and we know it. But we are brainwashed by our economic system until we end up with a tomb beneath a pyramid of time payments, mortgages, preposterous gadgetry, playthings that divert our attention for the sheer idiocy of the charade.

“The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed.

“Where then lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of the purse of bankruptcy of life?”

—-Sterling Hayden in “Wanderer” (1963)—-


On Writers Conferences: “Pen to Published” in Santa Rosa

April 26, 2018

While my own experience is relatively small—limited by geography and budget to local writers conferences with early-bird registration discounts—it leads me to offer this inevitable advice: Find one in your area, sign up, mark your calendar, and attend!

I’ve lately come from the Redwood Writers’ “Pen to Published Conference,” a one-day event held every other April in Santa Rosa CA. This is without a doubt the best bargain you can find. Two keynotes, choice of four half-day workshops or twelve one-hour sessions, breakfast and lunch—a full day that leaves you exhausted and energized all at once.

Exhausted in a good way, from having to focus on this wealth of knowledge and insight from all the presenters, from taking notes and compiling action-item lists, from meeting old friends and making new ones in this dynamic world of self-motivated writers and editors, publishers and poets.

Energized in an even better way. For most of us, our writing craft is a solitary endeavor, wherein we type madly away, eyes focused on the letters magically flowing from our fingertips to computer screen before us. To our friends and families, this obsession is hard to comprehend sometimes. We are isolated, turned inward.

But when we meet, all of us geeks to our craft in one way or another, we have found our community, our place to share this otherwise solitary experience. “I’m not so strange,” I think. “Look at these hundreds of people just like me. . . .”

It’s the community more than anything else that means so much to me. But right after that, it’s the insights that come from professional presentations on craft, genre, publishing, marketing and all the rest.

Keep an eye out for the next conference in your area. Make a point of attending. Go with a head full of high expectations, and come away having them fulfilled.

Review: Big King Richard II in a Small Space

February 16, 2018

The king is in your presence. One can see him in actor/director David Abrams, whose clear affiliation with this play, its relevance in our time brings Shakespeare’s lesser known King Richard II to the stage in Birdbath Theater’s remarkable new production.

Not only this king, but a complex web of courtiers, staring down each other in their own lust for power, banished, exiled, returned in rebellion. At the outset this shallow, intemperate king does not seem to know what he is doing, how his ill-considered whims and hasty his accommodations to those who flatter him and quick dismissals of those who don’t, will stoke the resentment of his underlings and in the end bring about his own downfall. Sound familiar?

All this takes place in a compressed theatre space carved out of the Key Tea House in San Rafael, with a raised stage at one end, and an elongated space between rows of folding chairs. The drama is between us, immediately in front of us, and drama it is.

David Abrams’ Richard evolves before our eyes, a subtly nuanced character revealed layer by layer. It is a genuine pleasure to watch Melanie Bandera-Haas dive so deeply into the depths of Shakespeare’s characters (first as the widowed Duchess of Gloucester, and then as Richard’s conflicted uncle the Duke of York) and bring them to such potent realization. Both captured the full range of the power and passion of this simmering tale of treason and its consequences.

Most of the actors (there are only eight) take on dual roles, all of them with precision and aplomb. Special note here for Rob Garcia’s moving portrayal of John of Gaunt, especially his “this England” speech, and Leon Goertzen’s turn as the Duchess of York.

The costuming, done with great ingenuity on a tiny budget, helps to further distinguish these alternating roles, and the spare stage and simple props show just how much can be done with so little, when you have such sublime acting talent making the most the Bard’s beautiful script.

If you want to have theatre in your home town, you have to patronize it, and Birdbath is definitely a company we want to keep going here, as an investment not in them, but in ourselves. We need this, we learn and grow from it. Go and see for yourself, before the short run of this amazing production comes to an end.

Run: Extended! Weekends through February 25, 2018
At: Key Tea House @ Open Secret Bookstore, 921 C Street, San Rafael, CA
Box Office:

Spindrift’s “Proof” Up Close and Personal

January 27, 2018

There’s a reason I so dearly love black box theater. When it all works. It’s because you are face to face with, in the same room with, in intimate connection with everything that is happening on the stage. The stage is your living room, the sibling characters are your own family, their confrontations and confusions every bit as real as those you’ve been a part of. You are witness to every withering look, recipient of every caustic innuendo, sharing in every withheld tear.

It all works in Pacifica Spindrift’s current production of “Proof.” I had the great fortune to score a front row seat, so close I had to make sure my feet were tucked under my seat lest the actors trip over them. I know these four people in front of me were actors, their roles scripted (by playwright David Auburn), their movements blocked, their emotions barely held in check or given full release at a moment’s notice. But to me, this night was like watching life unfolding, close enough to my own personal experience to keep me spellbound the whole night.

The crisis unravels from the arcane heights of abstract academic mathematics, but it has more to do with the fragile hold some of us can barely keep on reality while looking for meaning in life where it may not exist. Or maybe we try so hard to make connections between lofty principles that we fail to make the most important ones at our fingertips.

And so we see these four characters, the disillusioned father Robert (Charles Evans) and his two daughters Catherine (Devon Degroot) and Claire (Nicole Odell), none of whom really know how to treat with each other, and the grad student/boyfriend Hal (Justin Lucas) who stumbles into the mess and only makes it worse.

I can’t say enough good things about these four performers and the interpersonal dynamics they each brought to their roles. It was as though I were watching two real sisters BE sisters, watching Hal and Claire try to figure out what they need to be with each other, watching Robert rise and then fall through the fog of his encroaching madness. Kudos also to director Gabriel A. Ross for shaping this whole production to such a finely woven tapestry, and for the decision to display it within the intimate confines of Pacifica Spindrift’s black box of their Muriel Watkin Performance Space.

Through January 28, 2018
At: 1050 Crespi Drive, Pacifica, California 94044
(650) 359-8002

“You’ve Seen Me in Town. . . .”

January 15, 2018

I received a comment to the previous post (and a somewhat related letter of mine about “Christine” to the editor of our local newspaper) shortly after it appeared, words that brought me to consider my own-what they said, what they implied, and where they come in contact with my credo “either you do it or you talk about it.” Christine had been a homeless person, whose long unidentified body had been found beside the highway in our small town.

“There are those of us in town,” my respondent said, “who don’t have the same problems Christine had, but have been living in fear for years, who have nowhere to turn who are afraid they could end up with a similar fate. When you wrote about seeing people with haunted eyes I wondered if you had seen me. . . .”

Perhaps I had.

“. . . and wondered if you could see in my eyes what I have been through.”

Perhaps I had not.

“People who live normal lives tend to either not understand or blame the person somehow for the situation they are in, or it is too awful to believe for most people to grasp. They think on some level the person deserves it, or that all families are loving and supportive and if not, it must be something of the person’s own doing—but they would be wrong in this assumption.”

I believe I have been.

“David there are people like me who need help who are terrified every single day, who spend so much time looking over our shoulder and looking for help and only being confronted by well-wishers who say they will ‘pray for you’ but offer no real help, even knowing how bad it is.” Such prayers are for the benefit of those who make them. Prayers are not, as my respondent says, real help.

“This is happening in your town, David, not very far from where you are.” Christine lived and died here ten years ago. This is happening today. In my town, in your town, wherever you happen to be reading this.

“I don’t even know if you, like everyone else, will wave your hand at me and shake your head and say’ that is terrible, we should be more kind to each other’. But some people aren’t kind. And some people are very scared, like me.”

What then is real help? When our own homes are filled, our own resources are limited, when we share what limited time and money we have freely, sowing it into the world wherever we feel it will do the most good, what then, when that is not enough?

When it only reaches some, but cannot reach all?

What do we do next?

Archie and G’girl: Homeless?

December 31, 2017

I sat down to lunch last week with a cheerful, gray-bearded fellow named Archie, and his little dog G’girl. They chowed down on ample helpings of roast chicken and roasted potatoes (G’girl from a paper tray on the fellowship-room floor, of course). They were of the homeless persuasion, I was not, having come to do my small part in serving the “Wednesday lunch” at this particular church.

I say “persuasion” because it seemed, for these two, a choice. Other than his somewhat unwashed and unkempt attire, Archie did not have the look of what I’ve come to expect for homeless people—worn-out, beaten-down, dazed and confused, like a number of the other diners at the Wednesday lunch He seemed pretty hale and hearty to me, well-enough fed and washed.

It was a little while into our shared lunch that he opened up and engaged in some conversation. I’m always curious about anybody’s lifestyle, but I didn’t want to seem overly inquisitive about his. G’girl got friendly too, after a while, stood up by my side for a chin-scratch.

“It’s hard work,” Archie said. “You think there’s nothing to it, that we’re lazy or something, but it’s hard work, sitting on the pavement in front of Safeway. People look down on you. I’m not doing anything, just sitting. It’s hard work. I don’t ask for anything, I don’t have a cup out, I just sit there with my dog. People come up and offer me a little money, or some food. Sometimes they’ll say, can you help me move some boxes? Or dig up my garden? Things like that. So, I earn a little money sometimes. I walk

Where? “Everywhere, one end of town to the other, town to town, state to state. I was up north this summer, heading south now.”

“Do you carry everything with you?” I ask. He gestures toward a backpack in the corner. “Everything I need is right there. I sleep in a three-piece. You know what a three-piece is?”

I don’t. It’s military issue, Marine Corps three-in-one bivouac: ground cover, sleeping bag, waterproof cover so you don’t get wet when it rains.

Where are you tonight? “Under the bridge, in the bushes under the end of the bridge. I saw a cop, going in there. He said, Go ahead. No one will bother you there.”

I had my own thoughts, of course. Archie seemed like such a bright, energetic, sober, cheerful fellow—why not put that to use, get a job, settle down, live under a roof?

But I could tell he didn’t want that. Who knows where he’ll end up next week, next year, next decade? I didn’t really want to know, and I’m sure he didn’t either. One day at a time. Not easy, but uncomplicated. We all need something different, find our happiness or don’t, settle with what has come our way and don’t feel the need to look further. Seemed to me, that Archie had found his place, same as I’ve found my own. Home—isn’t that the place we want to be?

As Good as Your Word: Promises made to be kept

November 28, 2017

Promises and commitments are the outward signs of mutual trust between parties, a shared understanding, and a bargain to be upheld at each end. A contract, if you will, whether written and signed, or verbal and committed over a handshake, to terms large and detailed involving the exchange of vast sums of money, or as simple as a plan to meet for dinner a few days hence. Or a proposal of marriage with a smiling acceptance on the spot, of all that marriage entails.

We cannot know what the outcomes of such contracts can be until they have been made and the specified time elapsed, and the fulfillments honored or not. But if there is no trust at the outset, no sense of honor extended from the very first negotiations, that all parties involved can be “as good as their word,” such contracts are likely to fail.

In 1914, Shackleton and Aeneas Mackintosh had an agreement that the Scotsman would take charge of the ship Aurora and the Ross Sea Party to set up a line of depots from Cape Evans to the Beardmore Glacier in Antarctica. And since there could be no further communication once the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea Parties were at sea, the commitment must hold through all risk and travail, over the span of a year, bound only by a sense of duty and honor.

Both Parties, as it turned out, ran into overwhelming circumstances that irrevocably altered their plans. Shipwreck in the Weddell ice took the Endurance before her time. The Aurora, carried away by the ice, left a small party marooned at Cape Evans with barely enough to sustain themselves, let alone carry out their mission, to lay those depots on which Shackleton’s life would depend. (For the rest of the story, see Chapter Eight in “When Your Life Depends on It.”)

Neither party could know the fate of the other. The Ross Sea men, at enormous personal sacrifice, working in the field for nearly a year to fulfill their part of the bargain, had only their own sense of honor to drive them. But they did what they said they were going to do.

They were as good as their word. Are we?